Originally published January 30, 2019 on Inc.com.
Working with a difficult person (and, often, more than one) is as expected in the workplace as attending pointless meetings.
We’ve all desperately tried to get a colleague to behave better, like the one who complains every time a change is announced, or who nitpicks at every detail in your presentation, or who completely withdraws when given direct feedback. These are the folks whom we try to work around, or avoid, or even pray that they find gainful employment in a different department – or a different company.
If you’re like most people, none of your approaches to get the other person to change make a noticeable, permanent, positive difference in your day-to-day relationship. There are likely multiple factors that may be contributing to your ongoing frustration. And while some of those factors will be outside of your control, choosing your mindset about your difficult person is completely within your power.
Here are three perspectives about working with difficult people that just might help you get unstuck:
1. You are likely your Difficult Person’s Difficult Person.
I have shared this point of view with thousands of leaders across industries in my workshop on “Navigating Conflict and Tricky Conversations”. Most of the participants have to hear this this idea — that your Difficult Person considers YOU difficult — at least twice in order to process it. We are so used to thinking about the other person as the problem that we rarely think about our contribution to the dynamic. But think about it: if you are experiencing the other person as challenging, he or she is likely experiencing you as challenging, too.
Now, you may not be challenging to each other in the same way–you may be frustrated by your colleague’s slow, painstaking and methodical approach to projects while she is bothered by your quick, intuitive way of executing tasks. Yet, the bottom-line is the same: you’re both driving each other bananas. So, take a step back from your indignation with your colleague, and reflect on how you may not be such a terrific person to work with, either.
2. Your Difficult Person may not be able to behave the way you want her to.
In her book, Make Difficult People Disappear: How to Deal with Stressful Behavior and Eliminate Conflict, Monica Wofford writes “Conflict occurs when we demand and expect others to behave in a way that is not natural or known.” While it might seem crystal clear to you that if your difficult person would just talk less/work faster/collaborate more, he or she would be the kind of person you’d be happy to work with. And while taking less/working faster/collaborating more might be behaviors that you can exhibit, and that you value, that may not be the case for your Difficult Person.
Wofford writes, “Those we work with who create conflict are often not being difficult, but are truly different in their approach.” If you’re expecting someone to “behave in a way that is not natural or known” to them, you’re in for an uphill battle. You may want to alter how you expect colleague to behave (meaning just like you would, right?), and acknowledge, appreciate and reward them for the value he or she brings to creating a necessary diversity of work styles.
3. You may not be able to fix things with your Difficult Person.
You may want the relationship to feel more positive and productive, but sometimes, that just isn’t in the cards. According to Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule, if the relationship truly isn’t going to improve, you may need to “practice the fine art of emotional detachment”.
This includes ignoring the behaviors that feel intolerable to you, and choosing not get emotionally triggered–which certainly takes some practice. It also means not judging yourself harshly for not being able to make every workplace relationship a great one. Accept that you can change your own mindsets and behaviors, but you cannot change another person–and you cannot fix a relationship all by yourself.
As psychologist Carl Jung wrote, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Use what you come to learn about dealing with difficult people to improve yourself, and your future relationships–even if you can’t improve this one.